It is written—by me—that the sport of noir is boxing. But noir is a mansion made of many dark rooms, and more rooms are being added as we read and write. One of the most original chambers to be added is the genre of lucha noir, created in a single book—Hoodtown, by Christa Faust.
In the US and UK, professional wrestling has had more to do with physical theater than with sport. I remember the Saturday afternoon TV show World of Sport I watched growing up in Scotland. Wrestling was as much a fixture as soccer (more correctly known as football over there), and much more of it was shown than boxing—but it was obvious, even to the child I was, that it wasn’t “real.” Even the names of the top wrestlers told me that: Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, the masked Kendo Nagasaki (who, of course, wasn’t Japanese). I would watch as they subjected their opponents to punishment so brutal it would be certain to kill or at least maim—but it rarely even left a mark, and the victim would be back on his feet immediately after. I would see the blood dripping from the wounds of boxers, and I would know that it wasn’t the same thing. With its good guys and bad guys playing to the crowd, it was a version of pantomime aimed at larger, older humans, if not exactly adults.
It was the same when, as an adult, I watched US wrestling. It seemed to have more in common with The Three Stooges than with any combat sport. In tragic boxing fiction, fallen champions would become professional wrestlers, objects of pity hamming it up for ignorant spectators to make enough money to survive.
My first encounter with lucha libre was in the Love and Rockets comic books, and it seemed to me that it was more of the same, with more colorful costumes and masks. Indeed, as the stories moved in a more realistic direction, there was less about the lucha matches between the two most important older women in the protagonist’s life, until that aspect of the epic story vanished completely. The only difference between that world and the US and UK versions was that the fights were presented as real.
But there has been no wrestling equivalent of The Harder They Fall, Fat City, Raging Bull or even the absurd, but hugely-popular, Rocky series. Paradise Alley, written, directed and starring Sylvester Stallone (who also—I am not making this up—sings the theme song), is a far better, and more serious, film than the Rockies, but, since the wrestling matches are real fights, it has more similarity to boxing than wrestling. The film The Wrestler, while serious and powerful, is, aptly, more of a metaphor about the show-business career of Mickey Rourke than a portrait of a washed-up fighter. Wrestling fiction has been slight, and usually played for laughs…
Until Christa Faust took us to a place called Hoodtown, where the protagonist, a washed-up luchadora, tells us:
I was on my way to Madrugada’s, caught up in my own rhythm, last year’s good shoes against the sidewalk and the cranky twang in my bum knee underpinning the gentle tumble of random thoughts brought on by dull routine. I strolled past the scrappy stalls selling chewing gum and mask laces and switchblades. Past heaps of naughty postcards and religious images of El Santo and The Hooded Virgin, Our Lady of Secrets. Past exuberant event posters for the weekend’s big ACLL show, a hooded Who’s Who of local ring royalty. Past the forlorn glory of a masked mariachi band sitting on their instrument cases, gaudy hats at their feet, sharing a single cigarette while one of their number dug shirtless into the open maw of their ancient bus’ steaming engine…On that day I thought of nothing more than the sweat gathering beneath my hood, making the back of my neck itch.
Where is this? A place that exists only in Faust’s imagination, and simultaneously in the world we live in. A place where lucha culture meets noir, and that culture becomes an actual municipality, where wrestlers and sex workers alike wear masks. It has some of the dangerous, sexy feel of Old Town in Frank Miller’s Sin City, but none of that book’s (literal) cartoonishness, and so the sex is more erotic and the violence more frightening. It is about segregation, social class, loneliness and the human need for meaningful work. When Hood sex workers are murdered, no one outside of that ghetto cares, so X decides it’s up to her to find out what’s going on. Like Faust’s other protagonists the porn star Angel Dare and the private investigator Butch Fatale, X is neither a hero nor a victim, but a classic noir protagonist doing what she has to do. Noir, along with horror, is the most important and enduring genre because it is about real life, real loss, real death. It is not about heroism and it is not about moral lessons. This is why Raymond Chandler is not a noir writer but a romance novelist with a fancy prose style.
Christa Faust is a noir writer. She is, in the best sense of the word, a hack, in that she is an unsentimental producer of stories aimed at hooking and keeping readers. While knocking out her own original fiction, she performs work for hire, such as the novelization of Snakes on a Plane. Her novels have a pulp style, but they are not slight or careless. Reading them, you believe in her characters and worlds, even a world as seemingly otherworldly as Hoodtown.
Part of this comes from the fact that Faust researches her books as diligently as any reporter. (She is currently investigating the world of rodeos.) In the Angel Dare books, she shows that she knows the worlds of porn and mixed martial arts well—and Hoodtown is a combination of both. It contains a glossary of wrestling terms, but—like the thug argot in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange—when we spend some time in that world, we learn the language naturally. We are not spectators at a vaudeville skit, or suckers watching a fixed fight. In Faust’s world, the wrestling, in and out of the ring, is a real fight. A fight for life, and a fight for a life.